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Window Snyder’s new startup Thistle Technologies raises $2.5M seed to secure IoT devices

By Zack Whittaker

The Internet of Things has a security problem. The past decade has seen wave after wave of new internet-connected devices, from sensors through to webcams and smart home tech, often manufactured in bulk but with little — if any — consideration to security. Worse, many device manufacturers make no effort to fix security flaws, while others simply leave out the software update mechanisms needed to deliver patches altogether.

That sets up an entire swath of insecure and unpatchable devices to fail, and destined to be thrown out when they break down or are invariably hacked.

Security veteran Window Snyder thinks there is a better way. Her new startup, Thistle Technologies, is backed with $2.5 million in seed funding from True Ventures with the goal of helping IoT manufacturers reliably and securely deliver software updates to their devices.

Snyder founded Thistle last year, and named it after the flowering plant with sharp prickles designed to deter animals from eating them. “It’s a defense mechanism,” Snyder told TechCrunch, a name that’s fitting for a defensive technology company. The startup aims to help device manufacturers without the personnel or resources to integrate update mechanisms into their device’s software in order to receive security updates and better defend against security threats.

“We’re building the means so that they don’t have to do it themselves. They want to spend the time building customer-facing features anyway,” said Snyder. Prior to founding Thistle, Snyder worked in senior cybersecurity positions at Apple, Intel, and Microsoft, and also served as chief security officer at Mozilla, Square, and Fastly.

Thistle lands on the security scene at a time when IoT needs it most. Botnet operators are known to scan the internet for devices with weak default passwords and hijack their internet connections to pummel victims with floods of internet traffic, knocking entire websites and networks offline. In 2016, a record-breaking distributed denial-of-service attack launched by the Mirai botnet on internet infrastructure giant Dyn knocked some of the biggest websites — Shopify, SoundCloud, Spotify, Twitter — offline for hours. Mirai had ensnared thousands of IoT devices into its network at the time of the attack.

Other malicious hackers target IoT devices as a way to get a foot into a victim’s network, allowing them to launch attacks or plant malware from the inside.

Since device manufacturers have done little to solve their security problems among themselves, lawmakers are looking at legislating to curb some of the more egregious security mistakes made by default manufacturers, like using default — and often unchangeable — passwords and selling devices with no way to deliver security updates.

California paved the way after passing an IoT security law in 2018, with the U.K. following shortly after in 2019. The U.S. has no federal law governing basic IoT security standards.

Snyder said the push to introduce IoT cybersecurity laws could be “an easy way for folks to get into compliance” without having to hire fleets of security engineers. Having an update mechanism in place also helps to keeps the IoT devices around for longer — potentially for years longer — simply by being able to push fixes and new features.

“To build the infrastructure that’s going to allow you to continue to make those devices resilient and deliver new functionality through software, that’s an incredible opportunity for these device manufacturers. And so I’m building a security infrastructure company to support that security needs,” she said.

With the seed round in the bank, Snyder said the company is focused on hiring device and back-end engineers, product managers, and building new partnerships with device manufacturers.

Phil Black, co-founder of True Ventures — Thistle’s seed round investor — described the company as “an astute and natural next step in security technologies.” He added: “Window has so many of the qualities we look for in founders. She has deep domain expertise, is highly respected within the security community, and she’s driven by a deep passion to evolve her industry.”

How startups can ensure CCPA and GDPR compliance in 2021

By Annie Siebert
Beth Winters Contributor
Beth Winters, JD/MBA, is the solutions marketing manager of Aparavi, a data intelligence and automation software and services company that helps companies find and unlock the value of data.

Data is the most valuable asset for any business in 2021. If your business is online and collecting customer personal information, your business is dealing in data, which means data privacy compliance regulations will apply to everyone — no matter the company’s size.

Small startups might not think the world’s strictest data privacy laws — the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — apply to them, but it’s important to enact best data management practices before a legal situation arises.

Data compliance is not only critical to a company’s daily functions; if done wrong or not done at all, it can be quite costly for companies of all sizes.

For example, failing to comply with the GDPR can result in legal fines of €20 million or 4% of annual revenue. Under the CCPA, fines can also escalate quickly, to the tune of $2,500 to $7,500 per person whose data is exposed during a data breach.

If the data of 1,000 customers is compromised in a cybersecurity incident, that would add up to $7.5 million. The company can also be sued in class action claims or suffer reputational damage, resulting in lost business costs.

It is also important to recognize some benefits of good data management. If a company takes a proactive approach to data privacy, it may mitigate the impact of a data breach, which the government can take into consideration when assessing legal fines. In addition, companies can benefit from business insights, reduced storage costs and increased employee productivity, which can all make a big impact on the company’s bottom line.

Challenges of data compliance for startups

Data compliance is not only critical to a company’s daily functions; if done wrong or not done at all, it can be quite costly for companies of all sizes. For example, Vodafone Spain was recently fined $9.72 million under GDPR data protection failures, and enforcement trackers show schools, associations, municipalities, homeowners associations and more are also receiving fines.

GDPR regulators have issued $332.4 million in fines since the law was enacted almost two years ago and are being more aggressive with enforcement. While California’s attorney general started CCPA enforcement on July 1, 2020, the newly passed California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA) only recently created a state agency to more effectively enforce compliance for any company storing information of residents in California, a major hub of U.S. startups.

That is why in this age, data privacy compliance is key to a successful business. Unfortunately, many startups are at a disadvantage for many reasons, including:

  • Fewer resources and smaller teams — This means there are no designated data privacy officers, privacy attorneys or legal counsel dedicated to data privacy issues.
  • Lack of planning — This might be characterized by being unable to handle data privacy information requests (DSARs, or “data subject access requests”) to help fulfill the customer’s data rights or not having an overall program in place to deal with major data breaches, forcing a reactive instead of a proactive response, which can be time-consuming, slow and expensive.

Tamika Butler, Remix’s Tiffany Chu and Revel’s Frank Reig to discuss how to balance equitability and profitability at TC Sessions Mobility

By Kirsten Korosec

The race among mobility startups to become profitable by controlling market share has produced a string of bad results for cities and the people living in the them.

City officials and agencies learned from those early deployments of ride-hailing and shared scooter services and have since pushed back with new rules and tighter control over which companies can operate. This correction has prompted established companies to change how they do business and fueled a new crop of startups, all promising a different approach.

But can mobility be accessible, equitable and profitable? And how?

TC Sessions: Mobility 2021, a virtual event scheduled for June 9, aims to dig into those questions. Luckily, we have three guests who are at the center of cities, equity and shared mobility: community organizer, transportation consultant and lawyer Tamika L. Butler, Remix co-founder and CEO Tiffany Chu and Revel co-founder and CEO Frank Reig.

Butler, a lawyer and founder and principal of her own consulting company, is well known for work in diversity and inclusion, equity, the built environment, community organizing and leading nonprofits. She was most recently the director of planning in California and the director of equity and inclusion at Toole Design. She previously served as the executive director of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust and was the executive director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. Butler also sits on the board of Lacuna Technologies.

Chu is the CEO and co-founder of Remix, a startup that developed mapping software used by cities for transportation planning and street design. Remix was recently acquired by Via for $100 million and will continue to operate as a subsidiary of the company. Remix, which was backed by Sequoia Capital, Energy Impact Partners, Y Combinator, and Elemental Excelerator has been recognized as both a 2020 World Economic Forum Tech Pioneer and BloombergNEF Pioneer for its work in empowering cities to make transportation decisions with sustainability and equity at the forefront. Chu currently serves as Commissioner of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, and sits on the city’s Congestion Pricing Policy Advisory Committee. Previously, Tiffany was a Fellow at Code for America, the first UX hire at Zipcar and is an alum of Y Combinator. Tiffany has a background in architecture and urban planning from MIT.

Early Bird tickets to the show are now available — book today and save $100 before prices go up.

Reig is the co-founder and CEO of Revel, a transportation company that got its start launching a shared electric moped service in Brooklyn. The company, which launched in 2018, has since expanded its moped service to Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx, Washington, D.C., Miami, Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco. The company has since expanded its focus beyond moped and has started to build fast-charging EV Superhubs across New York City and launched an eBike subscription service in four NYC boroughs. Prior to Revel, Reig held senior roles in the energy and corporate sustainability sectors.

The trio will join other speakers TechCrunch has announced, a list that so far includes Joby Aviation founder and CEO JonBen Bevirt, investor and Linked founder Reid Hoffman, whose special purpose acquisition company just merged with Joby, as well as investors Clara Brenner of Urban Innovation Fund, Quin Garcia of Autotech Ventures and Rachel Holt of Construct Capital and Starship Technologies co-founder and CEO/CTO Ahti Heinla. Stay tuned for more announcements in the weeks leading up to the event.

Is Silicon Valley Dead? Not According to Venture Dollars

By Arielle Pardes
In a record quarter for VC funding, California still takes the cake—further evidence that reports of the region’s demise are greatly exaggerated.

Grocery startup Mercato spilled years of data, but didn’t tell its customers

By Zack Whittaker

A security lapse at online grocery delivery startup Mercato exposed tens of thousands of customer orders, TechCrunch has learned.

A person with knowledge of the incident told TechCrunch that the incident happened in January after one of the company’s cloud storage buckets, hosted on Amazon’s cloud, was left open and unprotected.

The company fixed the data spill, but has not yet alerted its customers.

Mercato was founded in 2015 and helps over a thousand smaller grocers and specialty food stores get online for pickup or delivery, without having to sign up for delivery services like Instacart or Amazon Fresh. Mercato operates in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, where the company is headquartered.

TechCrunch obtained a copy of the exposed data and verified a portion of the records by matching names and addresses against known existing accounts and public records. The data set contained more than 70,000 orders dating between September 2015 and November 2019, and included customer names and email addresses, home addresses, and order details. Each record also had the user’s IP address of the device they used to place the order.

The data set also included the personal data and order details of company executives.

It’s not clear how the security lapse happened since storage buckets on Amazon’s cloud are private by default, or when the company learned of the exposure.

Companies are required to disclose data breaches or security lapses to state attorneys-general, but no notices have been published where they are required by law, such as California. The data set had more than 1,800 residents in California, more than three times the number needed to trigger mandatory disclosure under the state’s data breach notification laws.

It’s also not known if Mercato disclosed the incident to investors ahead of its $26 million Series A raise earlier this month. Velvet Sea Ventures, which led the round, did not respond to emails requesting comment.

In a statement, Mercato chief executive Bobby Brannigan confirmed the incident but declined to answer our questions, citing an ongoing investigation.

“We are conducting a complete audit using a third party and will be contacting the individuals who have been affected. We are confident that no credit card data was accessed because we do not store those details on our servers. We will continually inform all authoritative bodies and stakeholders, including investors, regarding the findings of our audit and any steps needed to remedy this situation,” said Brannigan.


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This startup wants to use technology to help solve Austin’s housing shortage problem

By Mary Ann Azevedo

The sheer volume of people migrating to Austin from all over the country, but particularly from the San Francisco Bay Area, has been making headlines for a while now.

One result of this continued migration is a steady surge in housing prices due to increased demand and low inventory that dropped to nearly zero earlier this year. Now, Homebound, a Santa Rosa, California-based tech-enabled homebuilding startup, is entering the Austin market with the goal of helping ease some of the pain felt in the city by offering an alternative to buying existing homes.

Homebound has raised about $73 million over the years from the likes of Google Ventures, Fifth Wall, Khosla, Sound Ventures, Atomic and Thrive Capital. It raised a $35 million Series B last April and then closed on a $20 million convertible note late last year. CEO Nikki Pechet and Atomic managing partner Jack Abraham founded the company in 2017 after Abraham lost his home to wildfires.

Essentially serving as a virtual general contractor, Homebound combines technology and a network for “vetted” and licensed building “experts” to manage the new home construction from the design phase to completion. The startup has developed tools to track and manage hundreds of unique tasks associated with building a home.

Up until this point, Homebound has been focused on helping homeowners navigate the challenges and complexities of rebuilding after wildfires in California. But this month, Homebound will be expanding to Austin, its first non-disaster market, with the goal of taking learnings from those rebuilds and applying the same “streamlined, tech-enabled building process” to make custom homebuilding an option for local homeowners.

I talked with Homebound’s CEO and co-founder, Nikki Pechet, to learn more.

With Homebound, she said, the company is out to serve as a “next gen” homebuilder to make it possible “for anyone, anywhere to build a home.”

Austin’s housing market is definitely overheated, with homes going 10-30% above asking in some cases (I should know, I live here).

“Homeowners have been reaching out to us from across the country asking us to come to their market,” Pechet said. “We’re already seeing Austin grow faster than any of our other markets did in their early days. It’s going to be a huge market for us.”

It’s a model Pechet envisions replicating in other cities with similar housing supply issues such as Miami, Tampa, Raleigh and Charlotte.

“This is just the start,” Pechet said. “We’re taking the platform to markets across the country to help exactly with this issue.”

The company starts by helping a potential homeowner identify land they want to build on, or help them find a lot among the inventory Homebound has already built up. From there, it can help with everything from architectural plans to design to actual construction via its platform. Homebound offers a set of plans for people to choose from, with varying levels of customization.

Building costs for a typical single-family home in the Austin area will start around $300,000 depending on the size, complexity of house, lot size and location. That does not include land cost. Some people are opting to build second units on existing properties.

“In most cases, people can build a new home for less than they can pay for an existing home just because of the dynamics,” Pechet said.

Chinese hardware makers turn to crowdfunding as they look to go global

By Rita Liao

China’s tech giants have had a rough time in Western markets over the last few years. Huawei and DJI have been hit by trade restrictions, while TikTok and WeChat are threatened with their apps being banned in the U.S. Overall, Chinese companies with an overseas footprint are increasingly wary of rising geopolitical tensions.

But at an event hosted by California-based crowdfunding platform Indiegogo for Chinese consumer product makers in Shenzhen, businesses from sizes ranging from a startup making portable power stations to 53-year-old home appliances behemoth Midea, listened attentively as Indiegogo’s China managers shed light on how to court Western consumers.

“The first stage is to let ourselves be heard by the world. We have done that,” Li Yongqin, general manager of Indiegogo China, exhorted a room of entrepreneurs. “Next, we will bravely ride the tide and accept the challenge of coming the brands loved by users around the world.”

For Midea, “crowdfunding gives us a very direct way to understand consumers,” said Chen Zhenrui, who oversees the group’s overseas e-commerce initiative. Platforms like Indiegogo and Kickstarter are ways for individuals and organizations to raise capital from a large number of people to fund a project. In most cases, backers get perks or rewards from the project they fund.

Midea raised $1.5 million last year for a new air conditioner unit launched on Indiegogo, an almost negligible amount compared to the 280 billion yuan ($42 billion) annual revenue it generated in 2019. But the support from its 3,600 backers on Indiegogo was more a proof of concept.

Within a few weeks, Midea learned that a compact air conditioner that saddles snugly on the window sill, blocks out noise and saves energy could entice many American consumers. Like other established Chinese home appliances makers, Midea had been exporting for several decades.

But “in the past, much of our overseas business was in the traditional, B2B export realm. I think we are still far from being a world-class brand,” said Chen.

When Midea first launched on Indiegogo, a user left comments on its campaign page calling the project a scam: How could a Fortune Global 500 company be on Indiegogo?

“Through rounds of communication, we got to know each other. That user gave us a big push,” Chen recalled, adding that Midea used a dozen of suggestions from Indiegogo backers to improve its product.

Li Yongqin, general manager of Indiegogo China, exhorted a room of entrepreneurs to develop brands loved by global users. Photo: TechCrunch

More and more traditional manufacturers from China are giving crowdfunding a shot. Padmate, based in the southern coastal city of Xiamen, built a new earbud brand called Pamu from its foundation as a white-label maker of sound systems.

Edison Shen, a director at Padmate, said that traditional export was getting harder as old-school distributors became squeezed by new retail channels like e-commerce. By creating their own brands and reaching consumers directly, factories could also improve profit margins. Padmate went on Indiegogo in 2018 and raised over $6.6 million in one of its wireless headphone campaigns.

Most of the projects on Indiegogo will go beyond the 9-million-backer crowdfunding site onto mainstream platforms, listing on Amazon as well as advertising on Google and Facebook. Though the core services of these American Big Tech firms aren’t available in China, they have all set up some form of operational presence in China, whether it’s stationing staff in the country like Amazon or working through local ad resellers like Facebook.

Indiegogo itself opened its China office in Shenzhen five years ago and has since seen China-based projects raise over $300 million through its platform, according to Lu Li, general manager for Indiegogo’s global strategy. China is now the company’s fastest-growing market and accounted for over 40% of the campaigns that raised over $1 million in 2020.

Kickstarter, a rival to Indiegogo, also saw a surge in projects from China, which reached a record $60.5 million in funding in 2020. The Brooklyn-based company recently began looking for a contractor in Shenzhen or the adjacent city Hong Kong to help it research the Chinese market.

“In recent years, more Chinese companies are getting the hang of crowdfunding and taking their brand global, so ‘blockbuster’ campaigns [from China] are also on the rise,” observed Li.

Avant doubles down on digital banking with Zero Financial acquisition

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Avant, an online lender that has raised over $600 million in equity, announced today that it has acquired Zero Financial and its neobank brand, Level, to further its mission of becoming a digital bank for the masses.

Founded in 2012, Chicago-based Avant started out primarily as an online lender targeting “underserved consumers,” but is evolving into digital banking with this acquisition. The company notched gross revenue of $265 million in 2020 and has raised capital over the years from backers such as General Atlantic and Tiger Global Management.

“Our path has always been to become the premier digital bank for the everyday American,” Avant CEO James Paris told TechCrunch. “The massive transition to digital over the last 12 months made the timing right to expand our offerings.” 

The acquisition of Zero Financial and its neobank, Level (plus its banking app assets), will give Avant the ability to offer “a full ecosystem of banking and credit product offerings” through one fully digital platform, according to Paris. Those offerings include deposits, personal loans, credit cards and auto loans.

Financial terms of the deal weren’t disclosed other than the fact that the acquisition was completed with a combination of cash and stock.

Founded in 2016, San Francisco-based Zero Financial has raised $147 million in debt and equity, according to Crunchbase. New Enterprise Associates (NEA) led its $20 million Series A in May of 2019.

Level was unveiled to the public in February of 2020, created by the same California-based team that founded the “debit-style” credit card offering Zero, according to this FintechFutures piece. The challenger bank was created to target millennials dissatisfied with the incumbent banking options.

Zero Financial co-founder and CEO Bryce Galen said that Avant shared his company’s mission “to challenge the status quo by bringing innovative financial services products to consumers who might otherwise be unable to access them.”

Avant, notes Paris, uses thousands of AI-driven data points to determine credit risk. With this acquisition, that lens will be expanded with data, such as a deposit customer’s cash flow, how they manage their finances and whether they pay their bills on time. 

“This will allow us to make credit decisions faster and deliver personalized options to help underbanked consumers gain financial freedom, at any and every stage of their financial journey,” Paris told TechCrunch. “It will also build long-term engagement and loyalty and help grow our reach beyond the 1.5 million customers we’ve served to date.”  

Like a growing number of fintechs, Avant operates under the premise that a person’s ability to get credit shouldn’t be dictated by a credit score alone.

“A significant amount of Americans have poor, bad or no credit at all. For these people, accessing credit isn’t exactly easy and often comes with extra fees,” Paris said. That’s why, he added, Avant has focused on providing options for such consumers with “transparent, rewards-driven products.”

Level’s branchless, all-digital platform offers things such as cashback rewards on debit card purchases, a “competitive APY” on deposits, early access to paychecks and no hidden fees, all of which are especially beneficial for consumers on the path to financial freedom, according to Paris.

Since its inception in 2012, Avant has connected more than 1.5 million consumers to $7.5 billion in loans and 400,000 credit cards. The company launched its credit card in 2017 and over the past two years alone, it has grown its number of credit card users by 170%.

ChargerHelp raises $2.75M to keep EV chargers working

By Kirsten Korosec

The coming wave of electric vehicles will require more than thousands of charging stations. In addition to being installed, they also need to work — and today, that isn’t happening.

If a station doesn’t send out an error or a driver doesn’t report it, network providers might never know there’s even a problem. Kameale C. Terry, who co-founded ChargerHelp!, an on-demand repair app for electric vehicle charging stations, has seen these issues firsthand.

One customer assumed that poor usage rates at a particular station was due to a lack of EVs in the area, Terry recalled in a recent interview. That wasn’t the problem.

“There was an abandoned vehicle parked there and the station was surrounded by mud,” said Terry who is CEO and co-founded the company with Evette Ellis.

Demand for ChargerHelp’s service has attracted customers and investors. The company said it has raised $2.75 million from investors Trucks VC, Kapor Capital, JFF, Energy Impact Partners and The Fund. This round values the startup, which was founded in January 2020, at $11 million post-money.

The funds will be used to build out its platform, hire beyond its 27-person workforce and expand its service area. ChargerHelp works directly with the charging manufacturers and network providers.

“Today when a station goes down there’s really no troubleshooting guidance,” said Terry, noting that it takes getting someone out into the field to run diagnostics on the station to understand the specific problem. After an onsite visit, a technician then typically shares data with the customer, and then steps are taken to order the correct and specific part — a practice that often doesn’t happen today.

While ChargerHelp is couched as an on-demand repair app, it is also acts as a preventative maintenance service for its customers.

Powering up

The idea for ChargerHelp came from Terry’s experience working at EV Connect, where she held a number of roles, including head of customer experience and director of programs. During her time there, she worked with 12 manufacturers, which gave her knowledge into inner workings and common problems with the chargers.

It was here that she spotted a gap in the EV charging market.

“When the stations went down we really couldn’t get anyone on site because most of the issues were communication issues, vandalism, firmware updates or swapping out a part — all things that were not electrical,” Terry said.

And yet, the general practice was to use electrical contractors to fix issues at the charging stations. Terry said it could take as long as 30 days to get an electrical contractor on site to repair these non-electrical problems.

Terry often took matters in her own hands if issues arose with stations located in Los Angeles, where she is based.

“If there was a part that needed to be swapped out, I would just go do it myself,” Terry said, adding she didn’t have a background in software or repairs. “I thought, if I can figure this stuff out, then anyone can.”

In January 2020, Terry quit her job and started ChargerHelp. The newly minted founder joined the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, where she developed a curriculum to teach people how to repair EV chargers. It was here that she met Ellis, a career coach at LACI who also worked at the Long Beach Job Corp Center. Ellis is now the chief workforce officer at ChargerHelp.

Since then, Terry and Ellis were accepted into Elemental Excelerator’s startup incubator, raised about $400,000 in grant money, launched a pilot program with Tellus Power focused on preventative maintenance and landed contracts with EV charging networks and manufacturers such as EV Connect, ABB and SparkCharge. Terry said they have also hired their core team of seven employees and trained their first tranche of technicians.

Hiring approach

ChargerHelp-07886

Image Credits: ChargerHelp

ChargerHelp takes a workforce-development approach to finding employees. The company only hires in cohorts, or groups, of employees.

The company received more than 1,600 applications in its first recruitment round for electric vehicle service technicians, according to Terry. Of those, 20 were picked to go through training and 18 were ultimately hired to service contracts across six states, including California, Oregon, Washington, New York and Texas. Everyone picked to go through training is paid a stipend and earn two safety licenses.

The startup will begin its second recruitment round in April. All workers are full-time with a guaranteed wage of $30 an hour and are being given shares in the startup, Terry said. The company is working directly with workforce development centers in the areas where ChargerHelp needs technicians.

Closing on $103M, MaC VC is changing the face of venture capital

By Jonathan Shieber

The partners at MaC Venture Capital, the Los Angeles-based investment firm that has just closed on $103 million for its inaugural fund, have spent the bulk of their careers breaking barriers.

Formed when M Ventures (a firm founded by former Washington DC mayor Adrian Fenty); the first Black talent agency partner in the history of Hollywood, Charles D. King; and longtime operating executive (and former agent) Michael Palank joined forces with Marlon Nichols, a co-founder of the LA-based investment firm Cross Culture Capital, MaC Venture Capital wanted to be a different kind of fund.

The firm combines the focus on investing in software that Fenty had honed from his years spent as a special advisor to Andreessen Horowitz, where he spent five years before setting out to launch M Ventures; and Nichols’ thesis-driven approach to focusing on particular sectors that are being transformed by global cultural shifts wrought by changing consumer behavior and demographics.

“There’s a long history and a lot of relationships here,” said King, one of Hollywood’s premier power players and the founder of the global media company, Macro. “Adrian and I go back to 93 [when] we were in law school. We went on to conquer the world, where he went out to Washington DC and I became a senior partner at WME.”

Palank was connected to the team through King as well, since the two men worked together at William Morris before running business development for Will Smith and others.

“There was this idea of having connectivity between tech and innovation… that’s when we formed M Ventures [but] that understanding of media and culture… that focus… was complimentary with what Marlon was doing at Cross Culture,” King said.

Few firms could merge the cultural revolutions wrought by DJ Herc spinning records in the rec room of a Bronx apartment building and Sir Tim Berners Lee’s invention of the internet, but that’s exactly what MaC VC aims to do.

And while the firm’s founding partnership would prefer to focus on the financial achievements of their respective firms and the investments that now comprise the new portfolio of their combined efforts — it includes StokeGoodfairFinessePureStream, and Sote — it’s hard to overstate the significance that a general partnership that includes three Black men have raised $103 million in an industry that’s been repeatedly called out for problems with diversity and inclusion.

MaC Venture Capital co-founders Marlon Nichols, Michael Palank, Charles King, and Adrian Fenty. Image Credit: MaC Venture Capital

“Our LPs invested in us… for lots of different reasons but at the top of the list was that we are a diverse team in so many ways. We’re going to show them a set of companies that they would not have seen from any [other] VC fund,” said Fenty. “We also, in turn, have the same investing thesis when we look at companies. We want to have women founders, African American founders, Latino founders… In our fund now we have some companies that are all women, all African American or all Latino.”

The diversity of the firm’s ethos is also reflected in the broad group of limited partners that have come on to bankroll its operations: it includes Goldman Sachs, the University of Michigan, Howard University, Mitch and Freada Kapor, Foot Locker, and Greenspring Associates.

“We are thrilled to join MaC Venture Capital in this key milestone toward building a new kind of venture capital firm that is anchored around a cultural investment thesis and supports transformative companies and dynamic founders,” said Daniel Feder, Managing Director with the University of Michigan Investment Office, in a statement. “Their unified understanding of technology, media, entertainment, and government, along with a successful track record of investing, give them deep insights into burgeoning shifts in culture and behavior.”

And it extends to the firm’s portfolio, a clutch of startup companies headquartered around the globe — from Seattle to Houston and Los Angeles to Nairobi.

“We look at all verticals. We’re very happy to be generalists,” said Fenty.

A laser focus on software-enabled businesses is complemented by the thesis-driven approach laid out in position papers staking out predictions for how the ubiquity of gaming; conscious consumerism; new parenting paradigms; and cultural and demographic shifts will transform the global economy.

Increasingly, that thesis also means moving into areas of frontier technologies that include the space industry, mixed reality and everything at the intersection of computing and the transformation of the physical world — drawn in part by the firm’s close connection to the diverse tech ecosystem that’s emerging in Los Angeles. “We’re seeing these SpaceX and Tesla mafias spin out, entrepreneurs who have had best-in-class training at an Elon Musk company,” said Palank. “It’s a great talent pool, and LA has more computer science students graduating every year than Northern California.”

With its current portfolio, though early, the venture firm is operating in the top 5% of funds — at least on paper — and its early investments are up 3 times what the firm invested, Nichols said. 

“The way to think about it is MaC is essentially an extension of what we were building before,” the Cross Culture Ventures co-founder said. “We’re sticking with the concept that talent is ubiquitous but access to capital and opportunity is not. We want to be the source and access to capital for those founders.”

Planting seed investments on tech’s frontiers nets KdT Ventures $50 million for its latest fund

By Jonathan Shieber

Like other venture investors over the past year, Cain McClary, co-founder of the investment firm KdT Ventures, recently made the jump to Austin. But unlike the rest of them, he was coming from Black Mountain, NC.

McClary had spent the better part of the last three years with his co-founder Mack Healy building out a portfolio that would be the envy of almost any investor looking at financing startups whose businesses depend on innovations at the borders of current technological achievement.

Since 2017, when the firm closed on the first $3.5 million of what ended up being a $15 million fund (they had targeted $30 million), McClary and Healy managed to find their way onto the cap table of businesses like the green chemicals manufacturer, Solugen; health diagnostics technology developer, PathAI; the Nigerian genetic dataset developer, 54Gene; the novel biomaterials developer, Checkerspot; and the genetics-focused therapy company, Dyno Therapeutics. 

That portfolio — and the subsequent top decile performance that Cambridge Associates has said comes with it — has allowed McClary and Healy to close on an oversubscribed $50 million new fund to invest in promising startup companies.

KdT co-founders Cain McClary and Mack Healy. Image Credit: KdT Ventures

Hailing from a small Tennessee town outside of Leipers Fork (itself a small Tennessee town) McClary studied medicine at Tulane and business at Stanford where he linked up with Healy through a mutual friend.

Healy, who had done stints throughout big Bay Area startups like Airbnb, Databricks, and Facebook brought the software expertise (and some capital to stake the firm) while McClary provided the life sciences know-how.

Together the two men set out to hang their investment shingle at the intersection of software and life sciences that was proving to be fertile ground for new business creation. Each company in the firm’s portfolio depends on both the advances in understanding how to code computers and living cells.

McClary had left California for personal reasons when he launched the fund in 2017 and in 2020 relocated to Austin for professional ones. Healy had already set up shop in the city and it was easier, McClary said to fly out to San Francisco to look for companies from the Austin airport than it was from Ashville.

Also, both men were placing big bets on the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas to become the breeding ground for the type of entrepreneurs that the firm is looking to back.

Mack was there… the Dell Medical School and we think it’s going to be produce the types of entrpereneurs that we want to support. Houston has a med system. I firmly believe that texas has a place at the table in the future 

“The way that we define it is that we like to invest in the physical layer of the world,” said McClary. “That includes not only medicine, but chemicals and agriculture. All of that is driven by some of the things that we have this sourcecode for the physical world.”

Mapping the unmapped corners of the frontier tech startup world means that the firm not only has a presence in Austin, but has hired principals to scour Houston and Research Triangle Park in North Carolina for hot deals.

That doesn’t mean the firm is forsaking California though. One of the most recent deals in the KdT portfolio is Andes Ag, an Emeryville, Calif.-based startup that’s applying yield-boosting microbes directly to seeds in an effort to improve crop performance for farmers.

“The KdT team speaks the language of science, making them an outlier in this area of venture investing,” said JD Montgomery of Canterbury Consulting, a limited partner in KdT’s first and second fund. “They are passionate about building the science companies of the future that will tackle some of the significant challenges our world faces in the next decade and beyond.”

Side raises $150M at $1B valuation to help real estate agents go it alone

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Side, a real estate technology company that works to turn agents and independent brokerages into boutique brands and businesses, announced Monday that it has raised $150 million in Series D funding.

Coatue Management led the round, which brings San Francisco-based Side’s valuation to $1 billion and total funding raised to over $200 million since its 2017 inception. Existing backers Matrix Partners, Trinity Ventures and Sapphire Ventures also participated in the new financing.

The round is notable in that the amount raised is significantly higher than the $35 million Side raised in a Series C round in November 2019. Valuation too increased nearly 7x compared to the $150 million valuation at the time of its Series C. Sapphire Ventures led that investment and managing director Paul Levine, who was previously president and COO of Trulia (through its IPO and multibillion-dollar acquisition by Zillow), joined the company’s board of directors at that time.

The startup pulled in between $30 million and $50 million in revenue in 2020, and expects to double revenue this year. In 2019, Side represented over $5 billion in annual home sales across all of its partners. Today, the company’s community of agent partners represents over $15 billion in annual production volume.

Side was founded by Guy Gal, Edward Wu and Hilary Saunders on the premise that most real estate agents are “underserved and underappreciated” by traditional brokerage models.

CEO Gal said existing brokerages are designed to support “average” agents and as such, the top-producing agents end up having to do “all of the heavy lifting.”

Side’s white label model works with agents and teams by exclusively marketing their boutique brand, while also providing the required technology and support needed on the back end. The goal is to help partner agents “predictably grow” their businesses and improve their productivity.

“The way to think about Side is the way you think about what Shopify does for e-commerce…When partnering with Side, top-producing agents, teams and independent brokerages, for the first time in history, gain full ownership of their own brand and business without having to operate a brokerage,” Gal said. “When you spend years solving the problems of this very specific community of agents, you are able to use software to drive enormous efficiency for them in a way that has never been done before.”

Existing brokerages, he argues, actively discourage agents from becoming top producers and teams, because agents who serve fewer clients can be forced into paying much higher commission fees on every transaction, which means the incentives between brokerages and top agents and teams are misaligned.

“Top producers want to grow and differentiate, and brokerages want them to do less business at higher fees and be one more of the same under the same brand,” Gal said. “Side, rather than discouraging and competing with top producing agents and teams, enables them to grow and scale their own business and brand.”

Today, Side supports more than 1,500 partner agents across California, Texas and Florida.

The startup plans to spend its new capital on “significant hiring” and toward an expansion outside of California, Texas and Florida — the three markets in which it currently operates. It also plans to boost its 300-plus headcount by another 200 employees. 

Now approved in LA, Abodu’s backyard homes can now go from contract to completion in as little as 30 days

By Jonathan Shieber

Abodu, one of a slew of startup companies pitching backyard homes and office spaces to Californians in an effort to help address the state’s housing shortage, has instituted a new “Quickship” program that can take an order from contract to construction and installation in about 30 days.

Behind the quick turnaround time is a pre-approval process that was first rolled out in Santa Fe and came to Los Angeles in recent weeks.

Abodu began installing homes through a pre-approval process back in 2019, when the city of San Jose created a program that allowed developers of alternative dwelling units to submit plans for pre-approval to cut the time for homeowners.

That approval process means that ADU developers like Abodu can be permitted in one hour. Other ADU developers pre-approved in San Jose, California include Acton ADU, the venture-backed Connect Homes, J. Kretschmer Architect, Mayberry Workshop, Open Remodel and prefabADU. In Los Angeles, La Mas, IT House, Design, Bitches, Connect Homes, Welcome Projects and First Office have all had homes pre-approved for construction.

Beyond the cities where Adobu’s ADUs have received pre-approval, the company has built across California in cities ranging from, Palo Alto, Millbrae, Orange County, LA and Oakland. Units in the Bay Area cost roughly $189,000 as a starting price, compared to the $650,000 to $850,000 it takes to build units in a mid-rise apartment building, or $1 million per unit in a steel-reinforced highrise, according to the company.

“Our Quickship program is the fastest way to add housing,” said John Geary, CEO at Abodu. “Homeowners with immediate needs, be it family situations or those looking for investment income, can now complete an ADU project in as little as four weeks. A key mission for Abodu is to make a serious dent in our state’s housing deficit while providing people and municipalities the necessary blueprint to enact real change.”

For Initialized partner (and former TechCrunch writer) Kim-Mai Cutler, who serves on the Abodu board of directors, the achievement of a 30-day construction milestone is almost a dream come true. Cutler wrote the book (or the equivalent of a book) on the housing crisis and its impact on the Bay Area and California broadly.

That piece led Cutler to work in public service “on boards and commissions overseeing the spending of federal dollars on homelessness and the proceeds of municipal bonds directed at financing affordable housing (because yes, for some segments of residents, you do have to explicitly subsidize housing at the local level),” as she noted in a blog post about her investment in Abodu.

The interior of an Abodu home. Photo via Abodu.

Cutler backed the company because of her deep knowledge of the issues associated with housing.

“The reason this is a big deal is because Northern California has been the most expensive and unpredictable place to build new housing in the world. Projects typically take several years because of uncertainty with entitlements and materials,” Cutler wrote. “Over the past year, Abodu co-founders John Geary and Eric McInerney have put homes in the backyards of parents bringing kids home from college, a mother-and-son pair that each bought one for their homes in Millbrae, a couple looking to eventually house a grandmother in San Jose and on and on.”

The key inspiration that Abodu’s founders hit on was their concentration on granny flats, casitas and backyard dwellings. “While deliberations over mid-rise density were stalling in Sacramento, the state legislature (and legislatures up north in the Pacific Northwest) were passing bill after bill, including Phil Ting’s AB 68 and Bob Wieckowski’s SB 1069, to make it really easy to add backyard units,” Cutler wrote. “This is the kind of change that suburban America wants, is comfortable with and can politically pass and implement easily.”

To Cutler’s thinking, Adobu’s 30-day construction schedule will change consumer behavior, thanks to the fact that the home can be craned in and installed in less than a day on a foundation constructed in less than two weeks. Its incredibly low cost will enable a lot of opportunities to develop new inventory and the simple fact is that inventory remains a scarce commodity. As Cutler noted, only half as many homes are trading across the United States as were available a year ago, which is happening at the same time as when millennials are entering prime family formation years. 

Squarespace raises $300M at a staggering $10B valuation

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Squarespace has raised $300 million in a round of funding that values the company at a staggering $10 billion valuation.

New backers include Dragoneer, Tiger Global, D1 Capital Partners, Fidelity Management & Research Company, funds and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc. and Spruce House. Existing backers Accel and General Atlantic also participated. 

Squarespace founder & CEO Anthony Casalena said the fresh capital will advance the company’s growth initiatives and help it scale its product suite.

The move comes less than two months after the company filed confidentiality to go public via a direct listing or initial public offering.

Squarespace, which has helped millions create their own websites, was founded in 2003 and bootstrapped until a $38.5 million Series A in 2010 that was co-led by Accel and Index Ventures.

The online website creation and hosting service — which has now expanded into e-commerce by hosting online stores — then raised another $40 million round in 2014. But it is perhaps best known for its epic 2017-era $200 million secondary round that General Atlantic financed. That round was raised at a $1.5 billion pre-money valuation.

At that time, TechCrunch reported that Squarespace was a profitable company, with revenues increasing 50% in the prior year, to about $300 million. Execs are declining to comment on the company’s latest funding round beyond a post on its website.

New York City-based Squarespace has over 1,200 employees spread across its headquarters and offices in Dublin, Ireland; Portland, Oregon; and Los Angeles, California. 

 

SESO Labor is providing a way for migrant farmworkers to get legally protected work status in the US

By Jonathan Shieber

As the Biden administration works to bring legislation to Congress to address the endemic problem of immigration reform in America, on the other side of the nation a small California startup called SESO Labor has raised $4.5 million to ensure that farms can have access to legal migrant labor.

SESO’s founder Mike Guirguis raised the round over the summer from investors including Founders Fund and NFX. Pete Flint, a founder of Trulia joined the company’s board. The company has 12 farms it’s working with and negotiating contracts with another 46.

Working within the existing regulatory framework that has existed since 1986, SESO has created a service that streamlines and manages the process of getting H-2A visas, which allow migrant agricultural workers to reside temporarily in the U.S. with legal protections.

At this point, SESO is automating the visa process, getting the paperwork in place for workers and smoothing the application process. The company charges about $1,000 per application, but eventually as it begins offering more services to workers themselves, Guirguis envisions several robust lines of revenue. Eventually, the company would like to offer integrated services for both farm owners and farm workers, Guirguis said.

SESO is currently expecting to bring in 1,000 workers over the course of 2021 and the company is, as of now, pre-revenue. The largest industry player handling worker visas today currently brings in 6,000 workers per year, so the competition, for SESO, is market share, Guirguis said.

America’s complicated history of immigration and agricultural labor

The H-2A program was set up to allow agricultural employers who anticipate shortages of domestic workers to bring in non-immigrant foreign workers to the U.S. to work on farms temporarily or seasonally. The workers are covered by U.S. wage laws, workers’ compensation and other standards, including access to healthcare under the Affordable Care Act.

Employers who use the the visa program to hire workers are required to pay inbound and outbound transportation, provide free or rental housing, and provide meals for workers (they’re allowed to deduct the costs from salaries).

H-2 visas were first created in 1952 as part of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which reinforced the national origins quota system that restricted immigration primarily to Northern Europe, but opened America’s borders to Asian immigrants for the first time since immigration laws were first codified in 1924. While immigration regulations were further opened in the sixties, the last major immigration reform package in 1986 served to restrict immigration and made it illegal for businesses to hire undocumented workers. It also created the H-2A visas as a way for farms to hire migrant workers without incurring the penalties associated with using illegal labor.

For some migrant workers, the H-2A visa represents a golden ticket, according to Guirguis, an honors graduate of Stanford who wrote his graduate thesis on labor policy.

“We are providing a staffing solution for farms and agribusiness and we want to be Gusto for agriculture and upsell farms on a comprehensive human resources solution,” says Guirguis of the company’s ultimate mission, referencing payroll provider Gusto.

As Guirguis notes, most workers in agriculture are undocumented. “These are people who have been taken advantage of [and] the H-2A is a visa to bring workers in legally. We’re able to help employers maintain workforce [and] we’re building software to help farmers maintain the farms.”

Opening borders even as they remain closed

Farms need the help, if the latest numbers on labor shortages are believable, but it’s not necessarily a lack of H-2A visas that’s to blame, according to an article in Reuters.

In fact, the number of H-2A visas granted for agriculture equipment operators rose to 10,798 from October through March, according to the Reuters report. That’s up 49% from a year ago, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor cited by Reuters.

Instead of an inability to acquire the H-2A visa, it was an inability to travel to the U.S. that’s been causing problems. Tighter border controls, the persistent global pandemic and travel restrictions that were imposed to combat it have all played a role in keeping migrant workers in their home countries.

Still, Guirguis believes that with the right tools, more farms would be willing to use the H-2A visa, cutting down on illegal immigration and boosting the available labor pool for the tough farm jobs that American workers don’t seem to want.

Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images.

David Misener, the owner of an Oklahoma-based harvesting company called Green Acres Enterprises, is one employer who has struggled to find suitable replacements for the migrant workers he typically hires.

“They could not fathom doing it and making it work,” Misener told Retuers, speaking about the American workers he’d tried to hire.

“With H-2A, migrant workers make 10 times more than they would get paid at home,” said Guirguis. “They’re taking home the equivalent of $40 an hour. The H-2A is coveted.”

Guirguis thinks that with the right incentives and an easier onramp for farmers to manage the application and approval process, the number of employers that use H-2A visas could grow to be 30% to 50% of the farm workforce in the country. That means growing the number of potential jobs from 300,000 to 1.5 million for migrants who would be under many of the same legal protections that citizens enjoy, while they’re working on the visa.

Protecting agricultural workers through better paperwork

Interest in the farm labor nexus and issues surrounding it came to the first-time founder through Guirguis’ experience helping his cousin start her own farm. Spending several weekends a month helping her grow the farm with her husband, Guirguis heard his stories about coming to the U.S. as an undocumented worker.

Employers using the program avoid the liability associated with being caught employing illegal labor, something that crackdowns under the Trump Administration made more common.

Still, it’s hard to deny the program’s roots in the darker past of America’s immigration policy. And some immigration advocates argue that the H-2A system suffers from the same kinds of structural problems that plague the corollary H-1B visas for tech workers.

“The H-2A visa is a short-term temporary visa program that employers use to import workers into the agricultural fields … It’s part of a very antiquated immigration system that needs to change. The 11.5 million people who are here need to be given citizenship,” said Saket Soni, the founder of an organization called Resilience Force, which advocates for immigrant labor. “And then workers who come from other countries, if we need them, they have to be able to stay … H-2A workers don’t have a pathway to citizenship. Workers come to us afraid of blowing the whistle on labor issues. As much as the H-2A is a welcome gift for a worker it can also be abused.” 

Soni said the precarity of a worker’s situation — and their dependence on a single employer for their ability to remain in the country legally — means they are less likely to speak up about problems at work, since there’s nowhere for them to go if they are fired.

“We are big proponents that if you need people’s labor you have to welcome them as human beings,” Soni said. “Where there’s a labor shortage as people come, they should be allowed to stay … H-2A is an example of an outdated immigration tool.”

Guirguis clearly disagrees and said a platform like SESO’s will ultimately create more conveniences and better services for the workers who come in on these visas.

“We’re trying to put more money in the hands of these workers at the end of the day,” he said. “We’re going to be setting up remittance and banking services. Everything we do should be mutually beneficial for the employer and the worker who is trying to get into this program and know that they’re not getting taken advantage of.”

California DMV warns of data breach after a contractor was hit by ransomware

By Zack Whittaker

California’s Department of Motor Vehicles is warning of a potential data breach after a contractor was hit by ransomware.

The Seattle-based Automatic Funds Transfer Services (AFTS), which the DMV said it has used for verifying changes of address with the national database since 2019, was hit by an unspecified strain of ransomware earlier this month.

In a statement sent by email, the DMV said that the attack may have compromised “the last 20 months of California vehicle registration records that contain names, addresses, license plate numbers and vehicle identification numbers.” But the DMV said AFTS does not have access to customers’ Social Security numbers, dates of birth, voter registration, immigration status or driver’s license information, and was not compromised.

The DMV said it has since stopped all data transfers to AFTS and has since initiated an emergency contract to prevent any downtime.

AFTS is used across the United States to process payments, invoices and verify addresses. Several municipalities have already confirmed that they are affected by the data breach, suggesting it may not be limited to California’s DMV. But it’s not known what kind of ransomware hit AFTS. Ransomware typically encrypts a company’s files and will unlock them in exchange for a ransom. But since many companies have backups, some ransomware groups threaten to publish the stolen files online unless the ransom is paid.

AFTS could not be immediately reached for comment. Its website is offline, with a short message: “The website for AFTS and all related payment processing website [sic] are unavailable due to technical issues. We are working on restoring them as quickly as possible.”

“We are looking at additional measures to implement to bolster security to protect information held by the DMV and companies that we contract with,” said Steve Gordon, the director of the state’s DMV.

Last year it was reported that California’s DMV makes more than $50 million a year by selling drivers’ personal information, including to bondsmen and private investigators.

California has more than 35 million registered vehicles.

With Ironspring Ventures, Texas gets a $61 million new fund focused on ‘industrial’ technologies

By Jonathan Shieber

From the chemical refineries that line the Gulf Coast to oilfields of West Texas, heavy industry has always been a big part of the economy in the Lone Star State.

Now, as venture capital moves in to the state as part of an exodus from California, a new fund is combining Texas’ industrial past with its high technology future.

That fund is Ironspring Ventures, which has closed its first investment vehicle with $61 million nearly two years after it launched its fundraising efforts.

The fruit of a partnership between Adam Bridgman and Peter J. Holt, the co-founders of an earlier investment vehicle called Holt Ventures, and Ty Findley, a former investor at G.E. Ventures and the Pritzker Group, the firm’s mission is to “accelerate digital adoption across legacy heavy industries,” according to Bridgman.

Each member of the Ironspring team has a long history with industrial technologies and deep roots in the Texas economy. Findley, a managing partner, grew up “in the middle of nowhere in East Texas” but comes from a family of entrepreneurs who built businesses along the Texas and Louisiana border.

“I joined up with our other co-founder and managing partner, Peter Holt,” said Bridgman. “That was really step one for us pursuing this broader mission of investing in legacy industry at the early stage of digital innovation. We were fortunate to find a strong cultural alignment and rare experience with Ty [Findley]. After co-investing over a period of time we got to know each other very well. We joined forces and it’s been a nice journey over the last year-and-a-half of formally launching and formally closing the fund in December.”

The first deal that the three men invested in together was Augmentir, a service providing information and support for remote workers. “Everything comes back to these words ‘digital industrial’ for us,” said Findley. “There’s this massive gap where people forget that almost the majority of GDP in this country is manufacturing.”

So far, Ironspring has invested in four portfolio companies, Mercado, which is developing a service to improve the import process; Icon Build, a company developing 3-D printing tools and technologies for the building industry;  FastRadius, which brings design tools and services for prototyping and industrial design; and GoContractor, a safety and compliance management service.

The firm’s average check size is around $2.5 million and investments will range from $1 million on the low end to $4 million on the high end, according to the firm’s partners. That means looking for what the firm called “post-seed” deals.

And the firm is looking for technology that is transforming how businesses design products, build them, and provide services and operate across the wide range of industrial output.

“We’re trying to organize around those themes,” said Bridgman. 

Severe weather, blackouts show the grid’s biggest problem is infrastructure, not renewables

By Jonathan Shieber

It’s becoming harder for the U.S. to ignore the very real effects of global climate change — and despite the efforts of naysayers, it’s not a push to renewables that’s to blame for the outages sweeping the nation. It’s the country’s energy infrastructure.

Severe weather conditions caused by global warming have now caused massive blackouts across some of the largest cities in the United States. The inability of the U.S. power grid to withstand the stresses caused by extreme weather events shows that the nation needs a massive investment plan to upgrade energy infrastructure in an effort to make it more resilient.

These problems are now painfully apparent to the 29 million residents of Texas who are now subject to rolling blackouts caused by the frigid weather sweeping across the country.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas said it had “entered emergency conditions and initiated rotating outages at 1:25 a.m. today,” in a statement. The Texas grid shed 10.5 gigawatts of load — or enough to power 2 million homes at its peak.

“Extreme weather conditions caused many generating units – across fuel types – to trip offline and become unavailable,” the energy provider said in a statement.

Part of the problem lies with natural gas generators that supply much of the power to the grid in Texas, according to Princeton professor Jesse Jenkins, who has a joint appointment in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and Environment.

Citing a market participant, Jenkins noted on Twitter that roughly 26 gigawatts of thermal energy is offline because natural gas is being diverted to provide heat instead of power. Only about 4 gigawatts of wind is offline because of icing, Jenkins noted.

Confidential info from a market participant in ERCOT: As of ~10 AM Eastern time, the system has ~30 GW of capacity offline, ~26 GW of thermal — mostly natural gas which cant get fuel deliveries which are being priorities for heating loads — and ~4 GW of wind due to icing. https://t.co/Bfpn0WeRIq

— JesseJenkins (@JesseJenkins) February 15, 2021

The current blackouts have nothing to do with renewables and everything to do with cold weather slowing down natural gas production because of freeze offs and spiking demand for heating at the same time.

As Dr. Emily Grubert, an assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and, by courtesy, of Public Policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology, noted, the problem is more of a total systems issue than one associated with renewable power.

“Let us be absolutely clear: if there are grid failures today, it shows the existing (largely fossil-based) system cannot handle these conditions either,” Grubert wrote on Twitter. “These are scary, climate change-affected conditions that pose extreme challenges to the grid. We are likely to continue to see situations like this where our existing system cannot easily handle them. Any electricity system needs to make massive adaptive improvements.”

Renewable energy and energy storage can potentially provide a solution to the problem and help contribute to a more resilient grid. Residential energy developer Swell Energy raised $450 million in financing late last year to begin development of several projects across three states that would pair distributed, residential solar energy generation with battery storage to create what are called virtual power plants that can ease stress on energy grids in times of increased demand.

“Utilities are increasingly looking to distributed energy resources as valuable ‘grid edge’ assets,” said Suleman Khan, CEO of Swell Energy, in a statement, at the time of the announcement. “By networking these individual homes and businesses into virtual power plants, Swell is able to bring down the cost of ownership for its customers and help utilities manage demand across their electric grids.”

Other companies, like Evolve Energy or Griddy, try to help consumers manage costs by charging them wholesale rates for power. Those companies can only be economical when the rates for wholesale power are low. Right now, with demand for power skyrocketing, prices for energy in the ERCOT have surged above $5,000 per MW and hit the $9,000 cap in many nodes, according to Bloomberg Energy reporter Javier Bias.

The blackouts in Texas today and in California in January show that the current grid in the United States needs an overhaul. Whether it’s heavily regulated markets like California or a free market like Texas, current policy can’t stop the weather from wreaking havoc and putting people’s lives at risk.

 

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